A North Carolina Superior Court judge announced a ruling in favor of plaintiffs today, finding that plaintiffs were likely to win their claim that people incarcerated in North Carolina prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic are being held under unconstitutional conditions of confinement. The judge ordered the parties to return to the Court later this month with a plan for ensuring that people across its state prisons will be kept safe.
The ruling is in response to a lawsuit from the ACLU of North Carolina, Disability Rights North Carolina, Emancipate NC, Forward Justice, and the National Juvenile Justice Network asserting that the state’s failure to protect people in state custody from mass outbreaks of COVID-19 amounted to cruel and unusual punishment under the Constitution.
“This ruling affirms that state officials have a constitutional obligation to protect the health and safety of the people in their custody and combat the spread of this deadly disease,” said Leah Kang, Staff Attorney at the ACLU of North Carolina. “The deadly outbreaks in our state prisons have already claimed six lives and continue to threaten all North Carolinians, especially communities of color which have been disproportionately impacted by this pandemic. We’re hopeful this ruling will help prevent further loss of life by forcing state officials to implement safety measures and release people from these dangerous conditions.”
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the NC NAACP, Disability Rights North Carolina, the ACLU of North Carolina, three people who are currently incarcerated, and a spouse of an incarcerated person after the North Carolina Supreme Court declined to take up the case.
“The NC NAACP is gratified that the court took a critical step toward bringing about more safety and justice today,” said Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, President of the NC NAACP. “We will not stop our fight to ensure that the state of North Carolina upholds its constitutional obligations to those most vulnerable during this unprecedented pandemic.”
“No one should be condemned to die because state officials failed to uphold their basic obligation to protect the health and safety of the people in their care,” said Susan Pollitt, supervising attorney at Disability Rights North Carolina. “By demanding that state officials take the steps necessary to combat the spread of this disease, this ruling is a victory for our clients and for public health.”
“The court acknowledged and affirmed the basic human dignity of incarcerated people and their right to be protected from this dangerous pandemic,” said Dawn Blagrove, Executive Director of Emancipate NC. “This ruling will force the state to take long-overdue steps to stop the mass outbreaks spreading through our prisons, which already caused unconscionable suffering and death.”
“We are overjoyed that the court has recognized the severity and urgency of the situation in NC prisons and has taken decisive action to save lives,” said Whitley Carpenter, Staff Attorney with Forward Justice. “State officials have a duty to protect all North Carolinians, and we are relieved that such an important responsibility will now be carried out in a way that is just and humane.
“We are deeply encouraged that this ruling compels Governor Cooper to take critical steps to ensure youth safety while in confinement,” said K. Ricky Watson, Executive Director of the National Juvenile Justice Network. “We are hopeful that this ruling will alleviate some of the additional trauma and stress these youth have been facing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
As of today, five incarcerated people in state prisons and one prison staff person have died of COVID-19. Since the groups filed their initial lawsuit with the NC Supreme Court, state officials have announced the release of approximately 750 people, approximately two percent of the 34,000 people who were in their custody in mid-April.